By Eric Moonman, former Labour Party MP
Seldom has there been such turmoil in Parliament as we have seen in recent weeks, leading up to the vote on British air strikes in Syria. Significant scrutiny has centred on the party leaders – Jeremy Corbyn in particular.
As a former Labour MP, I have been intrigued by the number of people who have asked me: “How long will Jeremy Corbyn last as leader?” Initially I replied: “A few months.” Now I’m inclined to think he’s likely to be around close to the next election.
Whether he’s still in place during the next General Election is more debatable. The powerful trade unions may well be satisfied with him in the role of a stalking horse for a more and widely accepted candidate. But what Unite’s Len McCluskey had not anticipated was that the leadership issue would emerge after only a few months. Further, there is nothing he has said or done that has improved his image and political stature.
Of course, the provocative statements attributed to Corbyn on issues of controlling MPs over the strikes against ISIS reeks of the left-wing team around him. In the last hours prior to the Commons’ vote, Labour MPs were given a sharp warning to consult their constituencies. No surprise here for a contentious member to maintain a link with his local community, but the warning given was harsh and threatening.
On Israel, he will accept invitations to meet with community leaders and confine his remarks to opposing incidents of anti-Semitism. But, as we saw at the recent party conference, reference to Israel is a route too far. Corbyn would find it almost impossible to do a turnaround on his antipathy to the state of Israel and his position on Zionism.
He has long been identified with groups and policies antagonistic to Israel and its vulnerable position in the Middle East. His roots and loyalty are with the far left, evidenced by his appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor and Trevor Fisher to a key strategic role despite much anger and criticism from many in the party. On domestic issues, he will express his themes of peace, love and hope.
No problem here but, after his summer election campaign, one would assume he is now able to be more precise. His views on how he would deal with the big issues confronting this country, the economy, the refugees and the Russian involvement in the Middle East remain a leadership challenge. His technique of using Prime Minister’s Questions from constituency correspondence is something that backbenchers have used for decades and is now wearing rather thin.
I first saw Corbyn in action as a Labour colleague in Parliament and within the governance of Islington (he the MP and I chairman of the Health Authority). I recognised his earnestness. A good MP, but still a long way from a national party leader. He will Iearn on the job, as have done other Labour leaders, such as Harold Wilson and Clement Attlee but they were already strong impressive cabinet members when they took office. His appointments and advisors offer little balance in running the party, let alone the country.
Two important issues remain.
First, how loyal will the crowds, in his many national rallies, remain for Corbyn? Social media and the young did their job to bring out the large numbers. However, any failure by him to deliver will see a fairly prompt erosion of support.
The young and the new recruits to Labour, as we have seen elsewhere, will move on to the next media promoted politician. His personal popularity among voters has already seen a slump. In a short time – one month – it has fallen to a minus 20 percent in a YouGov Survey.
The same pollster found that Corbyn had the worst approval rating of any new Opposition leader. His opening rating of minus eight made him the first leader of the Opposition to begin with a negative score. His new score of minus 20 put him well behind Ed Miliband, whose personal rating stood at plus two at the same period. Second, despite the doubts expressed here about Corbyn as leader, there can be no satisfaction for Conservative success next time round.
Should the Scottish MPs work closely with Labour, as they have declared, this will provide a majority in Parliament combined with similar pacts with the Greens, as promoted by their leader, Caroline Lucas. Thus, there is all to play for leading up to 2020.
But Corbyn is, ultimately, unlikely to be a player.